At the Milwaukee Bucks’ championship parade earlier this year, a drunken PJ Tucker slurred before the Bucks faithful: “When I got here they were like, ‘yo, you gotta be a dog.’ And I said, man, we already got dogs. They just don’t know how to be dogs.”
Given what he’s shown so far this early into the season, perhaps it was Pat Connaughton whom Tucker was referring to at the time given the similarities between their roles on the floor. After all, they were both deployed in the playoffs to be Mike Budenholzer’s do-everything dogs of war. We all know how it ends: the Bucks switched and gang rebounded their way to their first championship in 50 years, due in part to the efforts of their energetic 3-and-D glue guys.
But it’s obvious with the growth Connaughton has shown thus far that he has grown to be a dog of his own, possibly due to his time spent under Tucker’s tutelage. Through the Milwaukee Bucks’ first 21 games in this young season, it has arguably been Planet Pat who has stepped up massively on the defensive end for the new-look Bucks.
Here’s how Connaughton has been silently filling the few holes for the defending champions, and how his redemption arc can translate to playoff success once more.
Consistency and chemistry in gravity are key for Planet Pat
More than anything, it’s Pat’s composure and reliability that have hit something of a crescendo as of late. In the Bucks’ seven-game winning streak so far, he’s put up 14 points and 5.4 rebounds per game on an extremely competent defensive rating of 96 points allowed per 100 possessions. He’s also shooting 47.6 percent from beyond the three-point line on a beyond respectable 6 attempts per game.
Compared to last year, his ability as a pick-and-pop threat has made for an excellent offensive option for the Bucks. In the same way as Grayson Allen, Planet Pat has found offensive growth as Giannis’ sharpshooting partner in the reverse pick-and-roll when Allen rests on the bench.
Even late in games, having Connaughton pop out for the three has been a deceptively easy way to generate points off Antetokounmpo’s gravity. If the defenders stay with him, as they did off the Jrue Holiday pass in the third clip below, he’s also able to roll to the rim and finish with ease.
“He’s had a hot streak…He’s certainly in a good place, and when he gets a good catch and lets it go, [there’s] a lot of confidence from everybody including him right now,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer was quoted as saying when asked about Connaughton’s increased shooting confidence as reported by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Unless you’re an avid fan of the Bucks, it’s easy to miss how good Pat has been in this area. But the advanced stats corroborate this: Connaughton is in the 100th percentile as the roll man in the pick-and-roll, which make up 6.4 percent of his plays. He scores 1.69 points per possession on these on a 90.9 percent effective field goal percentage.
Per Cleaning the Glass, Connaughton’s 130.9 points per shot 100 attempts put him in the 100th percentile in his position. The efficiency that being a star within your role affords your game can clearly take you places in this league, and NBA champion Connaughton is a testament to that. The result? Connaughton is fourth in the entire league in total three-point makes on catch-and-shoot opportunities, per NBA.com/stats.
In a league of streaky role players, you could certainly do a lot worse.
System play gets Connaughton easy shots
The secret is in his shot selection. Among all players who have played at least 500 minutes, only Duncan Robinson and Robert Covington have taken more of their shots at the rim and behind the three-point line. According to PBP Stats, a staggering 92.3 percent of Planet Pat’s shot attempts come from those areas. It’s clear he religiously sticks to his role by taking the most efficient shots that the Bucks’ system allows him.
His play-type stats on NBA.com/stats also paint a more pointed picture of his attack: On cut plays, which make up just 7.4 percent of his offensive plays, Connaughton scores 1.53 points per possession on 78.6 effective field goal percentage, good for the 85th percentile in his position.
He’s no off-ball savant, nor is he the most opportunistic cutter, but it’s clear in these plays that he’s learned to take advantage of the attention that the Bucks’ starters command on offense. It’s a coexistence that makes life easier for both the Bucks’ interior minister and the shooters surrounding him.
In this first clip, Connaughton is planted in the dunker area as the Giannis-Jrue pick-and-roll takes shape. Four Spurs jerseys converge toward the reigning Finals MVP as he rolls to the paint, but you can see Connaughton getting himself in position to receive the easy pass from Antetokounmpo under the rim.
The second play starts with the Bucks running a double drag for George Hill that flows into an easy give-and-go. Later on, Connaughton takes advantage of Antetokounmpo getting into the middle against a stout Brooklyn zone.
Even when he doesn’t get his points off the ball, Pat has also shown marked improvement driving to the basket. His strong frame somewhat offsets his lack of burst, and he’s shown he can finish over defenders with a soft high-glasser.
Pat plays the hustling, rebounding role to perfection
None of this is to argue that he is now some elite scorer or a starting level player, neither of which is actually the case as it currently stands. He’s still very limited for the most part, and this is no longer likely to change at this stage in his career.
Further down his play type stats are proof of this: he’s in the 61st percentile on handoff plays and 79th on spot-ups (which make up 42.6 percent of his offensive plays). He doesn’t have the quickest release and tends to shoot better with his feet set and a reasonable amount of space to launch. These make him competent but far from elite.
Despite this, it’s his strict adherence and hard work within the role he’s given that allows him to be extremely efficient for this Bucks team in his limited minutes. And central to this role is the hustle he puts into the dirty work for his team, as seen in the clips below.
If he’s not the one skying high for a board, he’s the one taking it upon himself to box out opposing bigs to give his teammates a shot at the extra possession. Whether it’s LaMarcus Aldridge, Mitchell Robinson, or Bryn Forbes, Connaughton shows no hesitation in using his stout frame to box out the opposition. On the other end of the floor, his strength also allows him to set solid screens when the need arises. He’s tied for seventh in the league in screen assists per game among guards, per NBA.com/stats.
It’s clear he has bought into Mike Budenholzer’s system, which in turn has given him the greenest of lights to let it fly from deep. As a result, he’s found a role that’s perfect for him, and now he’s thriving in it.
When the lion’s share of shots is gobbled up by All-League offensive talents like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, making the most of the few shots afforded to you is how you stand out on a contending team. It’s clear Connaughton is able to do just that, and it’s how he’s guaranteed himself a role on the defending champions that is purely his.
Defense and versatility win championships
Despite everything mentioned so far, Connaughton’s biggest contribution to this contending Bucks team is still his defense. This is because he’s doing a lot of the same things Tucker did as one of the veterans on the floor for the defending champions.
Though hustle was always his calling card, he’s never been at the top of the league in that skill—until now. Among guards in the NBA, Pat Connaughton leads the league in contested shots (8.1) per game as of this writing. He’s also tied for sixth in loose balls recovered per game, per NBA.com/stats.
Active hands can take you far as a defender as long as you know how to use them without fouling. In the first clip here, Connaughton’s read of the passing lane leads to a deflection that ultimately forces Malcolm Brogdon to settle for the three on a cold shooting night. He gets caught under what is arguably a moving screen and still manages to force out a decent contest on the trey.
Later on, his activity all over the floor leads to an extra possession for the Bucks, while he gets a block off a solid contest on the three-point attempt by Cade Cunningham in the succeeding clip. In that same game against Detroit, he also runs Saddiq Bey off the three-point line and manages to stay with him and cause a miss.
Effort isn’t everything when playing defense in the NBA, particularly when ball-stopping at the point of attack. But at the same time, good energy paired with a very specific body type can make up for a multitude of lapses on that end. Connaughton is in the 94th percentile when defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers, for instance, but is also in the 16th percentile when defending isolation plays.
These statistics speak to his switchability, which the Bucks have been lacking with the departure of PJ Tucker. In these clips, it’s clear how willingly Connaughton switches defensive assignments off screens, whether they’re quicker guards or gaudier forwards. In the first clip, he takes on the driving Westbrook and is able to use his body to alter the shot.
On top of his versatility and aggressiveness on defense is his awareness. Compared to his first few years with Milwaukee, he never overcommits to closing out or falls asleep ball-watching anymore.
In this first clip, he sees Grayson Allen converging towards the paint along with George Hill and potentially leaving Jerami Grant open in the short corner.
Later on, he snuffs out a cut by Russell Westbrook and is able to contest it into a miss. This is because he knows that he has Avery Bradley – who is shooting 34.9 percent on three-pointers this season – in his corner, allowing him to play help defense more conservatively. You can see he’s aware of the possibility of a cut with Westbrook camped next to Portis, as he looks back and forth between his man and Westbrook.
It was also against Brooklyn that Patty C. showed off just how valuable his presence could be as the closest asset the team has to replace PJ Tucker: his ability to play stifling defense on opposing stars. There are clear shades of Tucker in his harassment of Durant and reaches into passing lanes. Despite the clear height mismatch, Connaughton gets low and gets close to snuff out any airspace Durant has to get off a shot.
He doesn’t log any statistics with his aggressiveness here, but the results speak for themselves. At this point, with similar performances against RJ Barrett (1/5) and Malcolm Brogdon (3/7), it’s safe to say Connaughton’s growth as a defender is here to stay.
Defense and versatility win championships, as the Bucks already know. With his competence within his role coupled with his dogged defensive determination, Connaughton is, in some ways, the perfect role player for this Bucks team.